If you are a working woman who has read anything about the Ellen Pao discrimination case, your reaction has likely been one of unease and disappointment. Turns out that soft sexism—something very real, likely something you’ve experienced personally—is a slippery thing to prove in a court of law. But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about it.
To recap, Pao lost a gender discrimination suit last week (filed in 2010, and the four-week trial just wrapped in San Francisco) against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. In this suit, she alleged that, after filing a complaint about sexual harassment, that she was retaliated against for speaking up and held back from a rightful promotion. The jury disagreed. But as Ann Friedman notes in a piece at New York magazine about the case, it wasn’t because Pao did anything wrong. In fact, she went about things exactly as corporate practices dictated she should:
When one of her co-workers made unwanted sexual advances, she reported the behavior to her supervisor. She asked that her bosses bring in sexual-harassment educators and outsiders to investigate her claims. After experiencing what she felt was retaliation for her reporting the harassment — such as not being invited to certain events, or being poorly evaluated in a performance review — she sought the advice of an outside human-resources consultant. The consultant told her “she would not be successful at [Kleiner Perkins] because she complained and that going forward she should drop her complaints, because no one would do anything about them.” And so, when that prediction proved true, she filed a lawsuit. And then she was fired.
Pao’s loss in court happened because the sorts of things Pao accused the firm of fell under the gray zone of soft sexism, that ever-so-slightly tainted smudge of ball sweat on the lens of your career that has kept you out of meetings, decisions and promotions that at best you can only fantasize about, because they aren’t actually happening to you. It’s those moments in your working and personal life that are just nagging enough that you notice them and feel the burn of unfairness, but equally subtle enough that you can’t exactly prove it as sexism.
In a more recent piece at NYMag on the Pao case, Annie Lowrey recalls a recent avatar of soft sexism, who she calls Cocktail Party Guy. Lowrey writes:
It happens all the time when my husband and I are at work events together. Cocktail Party Guy asks my husband about how things are going at his news site, and he answers. Then Cocktail Party Guy asks me how our dogs are, and I answer, before pivoting the conversation back to work — and later rolling my eyes as we walk away. It is not impolite. It is not inappropriate. But it is still, at least in my mind, sexist. Both me and my husband love our work. Both me and my husband love our dogs. One of us gets asked about our work. One of us gets asked about our dogs.
It is a form of soft discrimination that I fear might be all too familiar to all too many women — and often I find it hard to explain to my male friends and colleagues. Occasionally, I even find myself struggling to convince them that it is discrimination, and that it has consequences.
In the Pao case, there were many examples of this kind of discrimination-or-not, Lowrey writes:
Exhibit A: Pao’s performance reviews knocked her for her “sharp elbows.” There were similar negative comments in Pao’s male colleagues’ reviews, but they were nevertheless promoted. Does that demonstrate that Kleiner Perkins treated Pao differently because she was a woman? Might they have interpreted her assertiveness as “bitchiness,” and her male colleagues’ assertiveness as “strength” or “conviction”? Maybe she really did have sharp elbows, hurting her relationships with clients? Can’t women ever be criticized for being caustic?
Exhibit B: Some of Pao’s male colleagues were invited on a skiing trip. Pao was not. “The issue is that we are staying in condos, and I was thinking that gents wouldn’t mind sharing, but gals might,” Pao’s colleague wrote in an email. “We can add 4-8 women next year.” But it was a social event held outside work hours. Does it really demonstrate anything about the culture of the firm?
“It went on and on like that,” Lowrey writes. “The trial dredged up dozens of messy incidents that could be interpreted as sexist, or not.” Pao’s legal argument was discrimination based on gender. The counterargument was that it had nothing to do with her being a woman; she just wasn’t promotable. And, while we’ve all seen middlingly competent men be promoted while ambitious women are passed over, how can you really prove that women aren’t seen as leaders because of innate bias that precedes them? You can’t, it turns out.
I’ve never worked at a powerhouse VC firm, but I’ve worked in enough corporate environments to know which end of an ace is up. (Answer: whichever end a dude is holding). The soft sexism of my work life has typically boiled down to the same thing over and over again: a dismissiveness that seems to undercut or reduce female contributions, while men seem inordinately credited or praised with brilliance, great ideas, or saving the day.
It’s basically having everything you do be treated as less relevant, brilliant, important, or worth consideration. I’ve been called not bubbly enough. I’ve been told my complaint about a coworker was a personal beef and not objective. I’ve been asked to do silent work again and again to prop up the work of men without recognition or credit for it. I’ve had ideas stolen outright by men and watched them garner high praise for them.
I’ve asked friends about their own experiences: one lamented being one of the few women on a team and getting a text that a certain coworker would really like cookies for their birthday. Another remembered just noticing “coincidences,” like how the majority of middle management were women, while all the VPs were men. A woman told me she’d recently been asked to hold someone “emotionally accountable” for a project. The fuck. Another said in meetings she is always assumed to have taken notes, even though it’s not at all part of her job description.
Or perhaps it’s outside of work, like Cocktail Party Guy. A female friend of mine says when her husband introduces her to a male friend, the friend will say “oh hey” to her but then proceed to converse only with her husband, whereas when her husband is introducing another woman to her, the woman will always include both members of the couple in the conversation.
Personally, as someone who has spent a lot of time in rock scenes and dated musicians, I’ve been called Yoko Ono more times than I can even recall. Another woman I know who’s dated dude musicians backs this up: Any change the man makes in his life (for the better) is assumed to be the result of haranguing from his ball and chain, who is assumed to be eager to stand in the way of him and his creativity.
It’s hard to prove, but the stakes are high. Lowrey notes:
It’s not your boss hitting on you and then demoting you to secretary when you spurn his advances. It’s your boss describing your assertiveness as too assertive, and suggesting you might be better suited for an operational role. It’s not your being asked to fix the coffees at a client meeting. It’s Cocktail Party Guy forcing you to return the conversation to business, so you have an opportunity to develop him as a source rather than talking about dogs for 20 minutes.
It is pervasive. It is persistent. And it is so, so exhausting, all those subtle hints that you are a little different and that your behavior is being interpreted a little differently.
The consequences are real, too, she notes: Fewer opportunities. Poorer evaluations. Open yourself to hostile acts if you complain. But in spite of the bummer news about the case, Lowrey and Friedman’s pieces insist that drawing attention to the issue is still a hugely positive step and a critical part of changing things. So in honor of Ellen Pao’s bravery, let’s dish.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.